There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Game 5 of the Western Conference final was an ugly one for the San Jose Sharks.
Despite an early flurry and a first period in which the ice was somewhat tilted in their favor, the Sharks were beaten roundly Sunday inside the ‘Shark Tank,’ and what started with an Oskar Sundqvist goal that put the St. Louis Blues ahead early later spiralled out of control. In the second frame, San Jose was dizzied by the St. Louis attack, with Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko tallies, the latter on a penalty shot, turning the tide significantly in the Blues’ favor. St. Louis kept coming in the third, too, with Schwartz notching his second of the night before capping the evening with his third of the evening, marking his second hat trick of the post-season.
It was truly the kind of defeat that usually either ends a series or signifies the beginning of a very short round. And it’s hardly surprising that in the wake of the Game 5 defeat, one that came in slightly embarrassing fashion by the time the proceedings were all said and done, that some pre-emptive eulogies have been written for the Sharks.
But here’s the thing: the last time San Jose was defeated so convincingly was when they went out and suffered a 5-0 shutout loss in Game 4 of the opening round against the Vegas Golden Knights. At that moment, the Sharks looked defeated. They had dropped three consecutive contests, allowed 16 goals against in three games and were on the cusp of elimination after taking a 1-0 series lead to start the post-season. And we all know what happened then.
In Game 5, the Sharks came out flying and put five past Marc-Andre Fleury and downed the Golden Knights to stay alive. In Game 6, Tomas Hertl delivered a double-overtime dagger that evened the momentum heading into the series-deciding contest. And then in Game 7, a combination of a favorable call and stunning power play heroics saw San Jose claw back from certain post-season death before an overtime victory sent them to the second round.
So, are the Sharks dead? No doubt, they are close. One more loss and San Jose will be packing their bags. But this series isn’t over yet, and the Sharks can still claw back. Here’s how:
JONESING FOR ‘PLAYOFF JONES’
Martin Jones was excellent from the aforementioned Game 4 loss against the Golden Knights, which was Jones’ third-straight defeat and marked the second outing in which he was pulled after less than a full night’s duty, through to Game 1 of the conference final. There should be no debate about that. He posted an 8-3 record, .926 save percentage and had a couple outings in which he was the difference. But an up-and-down post-season has seen Jones more down than up against the Blues. In his last four games, Jones has allowed 15 goals against on 119 shots, which gives him an .874 SP since the start of Game 2.
What the Sharks need now is the Jones who kept their season alive on at least a couple of occasions this post-season. San Jose needs the Jones who entered Game 6 of Round 1 with the Sharks’ season on the line and made 58 saves in the double-overtime victory. Or they need the Jones who was tested 29 times and cracked only twice in Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche. And if neither shows up, what they need, at the very least, is a Jones who can put up a single-game SP better than .909, which is his best mark over the past four games. He can steal games, and there’s no better time than the present.
The Sharks’ defensive performance in Game 5 – or, better put, the five goals San Jose allowed – can’t be laid at the feet of Jones. Yes, he was the goaltender of record and allowed five goals, but the netminder was also under siege most of the night. Not only did San Jose surrender 40 shots against, tied for the most they’ve allowed in a single 60-minute affair all post-season, but the defense was porous and allowed St. Louis to get to prime areas far too often.
Consider that through Games 2, 3 and 4, the Sharks allowed a total of 13.7 scoring chances against per game at five-a-side. In Game 5, the Blues managed to produce 26 scoring chances in just under 44 minutes of 5-on-5 action. That’s not to mention, either, that St. Louis managed to get to the premier areas of the ice to generate a dozen of those chances, finishing with a 12-5 edge in high-danger scoring chances on the night.
Jones needs to be better, but he needs help, as well. San Jose has been good in both areas throughout the series, winning the scoring chance battle at 5-on-5 three times and high-danger chance battle twice. The Sharks need to protect the middle of the ice going forward, because any slip-up can be incredibly costly.
BRING IN REINFORCEMENTS
If he’s nowhere near 100 percent, and it sure seems as though he isn’t, the Sharks can’t afford to keep trotting Erik Karlsson out as a top-four defenseman. Dressing the all-world offensive blueliner and putting him in situations where he can contribute offensively, such as the power play? By all means, San Jose should keep doing that if they so please. But it was evident in Game 5 even before he left the contest ahead of the third frame that Karlsson is ailing and asking him to play a regular 5-on-5 shift is doing more harm than good.
With that in mind, it’s time for San Jose to shift up their pairings and start heaping minutes on others. Brent Burns, who played nearly 26 minutes in Game 5, is going to need a 30-minute outing. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is going to need to carry a similar load. Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon will need to be leaned on more heavily. And it might not hurt to dress Tim Heed as a seventh defenseman, either. That creates a shorter bench up front, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Since San Jose’s Game 1 victory, the offense has been far too reliant on only a handful of players. To wit, Karlsson, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc are the only skaters with multiple points since the start of the second game of the conference final. Some praise must go to the Blues’ defense for limiting the Sharks’ depth through the past four games, but at a certain point San Jose’s middle-six needs to produce and make a difference, something they simply haven’t been able to do.
One player in particular who needs to make a greater impact on the scoresheet, aside from filling up the column reserved for penalized players, is Evander Kane. Through 19 games, he’s only dented twine twice and of his eight points this post-season, not a single one has come in the past four games. Kane’s offensive performance – as well as that of Gustav Nyquist, Barclay Goodrow and Brent Burns, who has only one point in the past four games – is going to be of utmost important if late-game injuries to Hertl and Joe Pavelski limit or remove one or both from Game 6 action entirely.
HOPE FOR HEALTH
Speaking of the knocks suffered by Hertl and Pavelski, not to mention the obvious ailments Karlsson is fighting through, some of the Sharks’ potential success going forward will inevitably rely on the health of their roster. Losing any of the three players listed above would be a significant blow and result in a great deal of lineup shuffling ahead of Game 6. And while that may help one or two depth players get going, or set the stage for an unlikely hero, it also significantly limits the Sharks’ attack and puts a lot of onus on the top talents who are good to go, such as Couture, Thornton and Meier.
The Sharks have a day to rest and recover, and the hope has to be that Hertl and Pavelski will be cleared and able to contribute.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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